In the 25 years between 1990 and 2015, humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, in a period of unprecedented and highly unequal emissions growth.

According to a new report by Oxfam, conducted with the Stockholm Environment Institute, during this time, the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population were responsible for more than twice as much carbon emissions as the 3.1 billion people who comprise the planet’s poorest half.

The ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ report, released today, lays bare the extent to which the climate crisis is not only unequal in its effects, but is also vastly unequal in terms of its causes. Among the key findings are:

  • The richest 10 per cent accounted for 52 per cent of emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015.
  • The richest 1 per cent, made up of 63 million people, emitted 15 per cent of the total in these 25 years, whilst the poorest half of humanity were responsible for just 7 per cent.
  • During this time, the richest 10 per cent emitted one third of Earth’s remaining carbon budget, if we are to stand a realistic chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
  • Annual emissions grew by 60 per cent over this quarter-century period; the richest 5 per cent (roughly 315 million people) were responsible for 37 per cent of this growth, whilst the total increase in emissions of the richest 1 per cent was three times greater than that of the poorest half.
  • The per capita consumption footprints of the richest 1 per cent are currently 35 times higher than the target for 2030 (if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees), whilst the footprints of the top 1 per cent are more than 100 times higher than those of the poorest half.

Tim Gore, Head of Climate Policy at Oxfam and author of the report said: “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fuelling the climate crisis yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price. Such extreme carbon inequality is a direct consequence of our governments decades long pursuit of grossly unequal and carbon intensive economic growth.”

Whilst it took 140 years for humanity to use 750 gigatons of the global carbon budget, it took only the 25 years from 1990 to 2015 for the same amount to be emitted again, with over half of these 750Gt being linked to the consumption of the richest 10 per cent of people. Unless urgent action is taken, the richest 10 per cent would fully deplete our remaining carbon budget for 1.5 degrees just a few years after 2030, even if everyone else’s emissions dropped to zero tomorrow.

The report states: “Over the past 20-30 years, the climate crisis has been fuelled and our limited global carbon budget squandered in the service of increasing the consumption of the already affluent, rather than lifting people out of poverty.”

Moreover, “The two groups that suffer most from this injustice are those least responsible for the climate crisis: poorer and marginalized people already struggling with climate impacts today, and future generations who will inherit a depleted carbon budget and a world accelerating towards climate breakdown.”

It urges governments to put tackling, “the twin climate and inequality crises at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery,” warning that a failure to do so, “will mean jumping from the frying pan of the current pandemic to the fire of an uncontrolled and irreversible climate crisis.”

“Public policies – from taxing luxury carbon like SUVs, frequent business class flights and private jets, to expanding digital and public transport infrastructure – can cut emissions, reduce inequality and boost public health. But to do so before the carbon budget for 1.5C is totally depleted, they must happen now.”

According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, referenced in ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’, at current emissions rates, we will pass a 50 per cent chance of exceeding 1.5 degrees of warming in 2034, whilst we only have 39 years (at current rates) until we exceed the same 50 per cent line for 2 degrees of warming.

In a further breakdown of the figures, the Oxfam report found:

  • Of the world’s top 1 per cent wealthiest individuals, those from North America alone contributed to 5.7% of emissions in 2015. Over a third of emissions from this 1 per cent group derive from American citizens.
  • Of the world’s wealthiest 10 per cent, those from North America emitted 16 per cent of total carbon emissions in 2015, whilst those in Europe were responsible for 8.5 per cent, and those in China, 7.3 per cent. Around half of the richest 10 per cent are associated with North America and the EU.
  • Of the individuals residing in the world’s middle 40 percent of wealth (below top 10 and above bottom 50), those from China contributed to 17.5 per cent of total 2015 emissions, followed by 5.8 per cent from Europeans, and 4.6 per cent from North Americans.
  • In contrast, the contributions of people across all wealth sectors from Sub-Saharan Africa (the top 1 and 10 per cent, the middle 40 and the bottom 50 per cent), were miniscule. Of those in the four categories who live in Sub-Saharan Africa respectively, their contributions to total 2015 carbon emissions were: 0.3 per cent, 0.9 per cent, 0.8 per cent, and 0.68 per cent.

There has been remarkably little shift in the source of emissions between 1990 and 2015; the top 1 per cent in wealth in 1990 emitted 13 per cent of that year’s total carbon emissions, compared to 15 per cent for 2015. The figures for the top 10 per cent decreased slightly from 50 per cent in 1990 to 49 per cent in 2015, whilst the middle 40 per cent’s contribution rose from 41 per cent to 44 per cent in the same time. Meanwhile, the bottom half of humanity contributed to only 8 per cent of carbon emission in 1990, and just 7 per cent twenty-five years later.

The report concludes: “While there has been substantial debate on the carbon impact of economic growth in so-called ’emerging economies’ over the past 20–30 years, our results suggest a need for increased attention to be paid to the continuing outsized impact of the minority of the world’s richest citizens, wherever they reside, and the continuing outsized economic development needs of the world’s poorest citizens.”

The report urges governments to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the coronavirus pandemic to reset the global economy, arguing that they have an, “historic, and final, opportunity to start building fairer economies within the limits of our planet, creating decent jobs that people need now and strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to future shocks, while safeguarding our climate for future generations.”

Commenting on the report, former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said: “As Oxfam’s new report shows, our current economic model has been an enabler of catastrophic climate change and equally catastrophic inequality. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an incontestable imperative to rebuild better and place the global economy on a more sustainable, resilient and fairer footing. Addressing the disproportionate carbon emissions from the wealthiest in society must be a key priority as part of this collective commitment.”

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.